San Francisco’s annual ode to all things bluegrass, country, folk, indie, rock, you name it, kicks off this week, and we’ve got your insiders’ guide for making the most out of the city’s largest (free) three-day festival. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has been filling Golden Gate Park, nearly to the breaking point, for going on 11 years now, and the crowds are only growing larger. Last year, an estimated 750,000 people flocked to the park’s Speedway, Lindley and Marx meadows to take part in this extraordinary fete, and to the uninitiated, those numbers can be daunting. Not to worry, knowledge is power and with some basic information, anyone can have a great time at HSB. No, we’re not going to tell you which bands to check out. That’s strictly up to you. But we’ve provided some helpful tips to aid the uninitiated in making the most of this year’s festival.
Getting to the event
There are four real options for getting to and from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: driving, biking, public transportation and walking.
Driving: Don’t do it. Those who’ve braved the weekend traffic during the festival are aware of the potential parking pitfalls that abound. Plus, with JFK, Transverse Dr. and Middle West Dr. closed to traffic, you’re better off leaving the car at home.
Biking: A good option for those who are able. The festival has bike parking available, as well as secure valet parking (limited), for those who prefer that.
Public Transportation: The 5 Fulton, 31 Balboa and 38 Geary are the closest lines on the Richmond side of the park, while the N Judah services the Sunset side. Be aware, Muni lines are often jammed during the festival weekend and according to sfmuni.org, only the 5 Fulton will have expanded service. So, unless your festival plans call for an early arrival time, be prepared to watch bus after bus pass you by, packed to the gills with eager festival-ites.
Walking: Wear a pair of comfortable shoes and leave the crowded Muni lines (and headaches) to the masses. Plus, it’s a great way to walk off those funnel cake calories.
Navigating the festival
Strollers, wheelchairs, etc: JFK Drive acts as the main pedestrian “highway” and it’s the one we recommend for parents with strollers and anyone using a wheelchair. Also, there’s a footpath running parallel to JFK, on the opposite side of Speedway meadow, which is also popular and paved but narrower than JFK. Both paths can get very crowded at or near the end of a set, so it’s best to navigate these roads with some savvy.
Schedule your time: Three words of advice to help you make the most of your festival experience: plan, plan, and plan. Don’t wait until the band you’re watching ends their set if you need to get to another stage. Waiting too long means braving the crowds and boosting the likelihood you won’t get a good spot. It can easily take you 15 minutes or longer to travel between stages. The same can be said for using the restroom facilities. Don’t wait. The lines can be long.
For a hassle free time: If you’re new to the festival, consider arriving early and just staking out some ground at one of the 6 stages and making a day of it there. Sure you might miss a couple of acts on your list, but you’ll also skip the headache of traipsing around in search of a new spot every 30-40 minutes.
Food & Drink: While the festival does have over 50 food and beverage vendors, there is no alcohol sold. Alcohol (beer and wine) is allowed in the park under certain park guidelines. Bring your own but don’t overdo it. As we mentioned, the restroom lines can be long
Non-Golden Gate Park festival events
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is only in Golden Gate Park, right? Hardly. When the sun goes down and the last set ends, the festivities keep going at several of San Francisco’s most iconic venues. Except these events are not free.
Thursday night: Don’t miss the benefit concert for the Richard de Lone Special Housing Project at Great American Music Hall. Featured artists include: Bill Kirchen and his Band, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and others. 7pm
Friday night: Slim’s will host an evening with the Jayhawks. 8pm
Saturday night: The festival will screen Mark Meatto’s documentary, “How to grow a band”, at the Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street). 8pm reception, 9pm screening followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.
For information on the festival schedule and lineup, go to stricklybluegrass.com.